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A head for figures

Many students and teachers find the topic of finance a dry and uninspiring one, but Hala Seliet is trying to change all that, as Carolyn O'Grady reports

Teachers often don't like the topic of finance in business studies. "They find it dry, boring and difficult. And students tend to feel the same", says Hala Seliet (pictured), head of social sciences, business education team leader and vocational courses co-ordinator at the Sandon School in Chelmsford, Essex. Hala is passionate about business studies, an enthusiasm that extends to finance, which, she says, is possibly the most important topic in the subject and the one that can unite all the others.

Now development regional practitioner on the Department for Education and Skills Success for All Project, she is also an advanced-skills teacher in business studies, a principal examiner for the new applied ASA2 and a part-time lecturer in the subject on two teacher training courses.

Hala has researched several aspects of business studies, but the issue that has recently engaged her most is numeracy. Organiser of a DfES-funded project that aims to raise achievement in business studies with particular reference to numbers, she concluded that "Students find the finance topic and financial figures one of the most difficult and confusing aspects the syllabus".

It wasn't the maths they found tricky - her own research showed the opposite. It was the application of maths within a business context. "It is the lack of this skill which is one of the main causes of underachievement in the subject. Analysis and interpretation of figures is one of the crucial skills which key stage 45 students need to acquire," she says.

But there was more to finance as a topic than that - much more. "Finance is the most powerful vehicle with which to deliver all business studies topics at those key stages," she maintains. "It can link topics to prior learning and integrate topics so as to promote reflection and skills of evaluation.

It is a mirror which reflects what is happening in other areas of a business."

It was a pity, therefore, that teachers often found the topic boring, "and the students often sense this and are turned off. Yet, when it is shown to them, teachers are amazed how simple it can be to use finance as a vehicle to link business study topics. It really boils down more or less to one formula: revenue - costs = profit or loss. Everything can be referred back to that and it creates a context and defines a purpose".

Dry and boring are not words you would use to describe Hala's lessons.

Linking topics to students' personal experience is a key ingredient. So to introduce children to the concept of "owns" and "owes" she might tell a story: "I want to buy a computer. Who will lend me the money? Will you, James? So, I borrow the money and buy a computer. Who owns it?"

Through discussion it materialises that she (the company) owns it, but she owes James pound;1,000 which quickly leads to the introduction of two key terms, assets and liabilities.

In her lessons, students move from working individually to working in pairs and then increasingly bigger groups, often using mind-mapping techniques as they go along. Visuals are important and often Hala will bring products, advertisements or real balance sheets into the classroom to illustrate her points. It seems to be working.

She has combined the use of finance as a vehicle to link to other areas of the syllabus and to promote students' thinking and reflection skills, with a strategy to address the problem of the amount of specialist language in business studies. This approach has, she says, resulted in a "huge improvement in grades - value added has remarkably improved for GCSE, AS and A2". The GCSE pass rate is now 95 per cent with 60 per cent achieving A-C marks. AS and A2 students are achieving a 100 per cent pass rate with 60 per cent gaining A-C.

"I adore my subject", she says. "I'm really glad that the DfES has started to recognise the importance of business studies in building skills including literacy and numbers and to appreciate its role in vocational courses.

"It's a subject of the future: the students' and the nation's."

* For descriptions of Hala Seliet's work and lesson plans go to: www.micro-active.comtptv

Lesson ideas

* Link topics to students' personal experience. Try to get them to recognise that business studies is about life. Use a lot of visuals and authentic items - bring in real products, advertisements and balance sheets; take students on visits to businesses, relevant exhibitions and so on.

* Structure lessons carefully and make sure students are aware of the structure. Hala Seliet represents each lesson as a triangle on the board showing its structure of starting at the bottom.

* Don't introduce more than two or three key terms in a lesson.

* Use lots of classification: research suggests that students retain information better when it is presented in this way. For example, ask them to classify land, labour capital and enterprise under one group (answer: factors of production).

* In lessons on finance, start with simple round figures, for example Pounds 100 rather than pound;93.32. Then gradually introduce more complex figures.

* Mind-mapping is a very useful tool. At the end of a module, Hala asks students to write topics and to branch out to subtopics and then keep branching out. This also acts as a model for revision.

* Organise group work in increasingly larger groups (this could be part of the mind-mapping exercise). In this way students learn from each other, particularly students with special needs.

* Try to make links with prior learning and with other subjects, so that pupils recognise that each subject - marketing, finance and so on - is all part of one unit. Particularly refer to the formula: revenue - cost = profit or loss

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